Retiring ambulance director reflects on career, people who have touched her life

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Longtime Chatfield ambulance director Sue Kester retired this past Monday, April 1.
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Chatfield News

“I was born in the California Bay Area, and it felt like I moved back in time when I moved to Chatfield. In 1971, the ambulance service was just being established, and I think back to some of those early days when Cy Morley and Dale Henry were part of the ambulance service,” recalled now-Chatfield resident Sue Kester.

As she retires from her position as the ambulance director, she recalled how Chatfield and its ambulance service appeared when she first arrived in town with her husband, Wayne, to make this their permanent home.

Nearly five decades later, her new hometown has become her old hometown, and people have forgotten that she was ever from anywhere else.

She’s been the friendly face they’ve welcomed at church, downtown for dinner and when they’ve accidentally tangled with the wrong hive of bees or put off going to the doctor for too long with that pernicious pain in their left foot. She’s the friendly face they’ll miss now that she’s retiring from 25 years as Chatfield’s ambulance director after spending the first seven years with the Chatfield ambulance as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

“I became an EMT in 1987, as I heard Chatfield Ambulance needed daytime people. My employer, Chosen Valley Care Center (CVCC), allowed me to run one week each month, as I worked in activities and not doing direct patient care. I was there for 16 years, then I was hired as director here,” Kester said. “My husband and I took classes together, and he served for 19 years. All the directors…there haven’t been a lot of directors, but it used to be volunteer and we kind of rotated through the crew until the early ‘90s when the city first hired someone. It was always a part-time position. I remember Mike Tuohy saying to me when I applied, ‘Susie, we want someone who’s going to be in it for the long run.’ I don’t know how long that is, but I think I have been.”

Kester’s hiring took place exactly 25 years before her retirement date. “I was hired on April 1, 1994, and everybody said, ‘April Fool’s Day?’, but it wasn’t a bad joke – I told them I was really hired then,” she said.

“When Wayne and I trained, my textbook was ‘Emergency Care’ third or fourth edition, and now we are anticipating the release of Edition 14,” Kester continued. “And we actually had more people then than we have now. We had enough pagers for four people, and they would meet at city hall at noon. They got their pagers for the entire week, and we used to always respond in teams of three. Now we respond in teams of two. We had say, 24 people, and now we have a roster of 27, but people’s lives are busier now and they don’t have as many volunteer hours as they once did. Now there’s three teams who are supposed to put in their hours, but if they can’t, it’s been me or Rocky (Burnett) or someone else.”

Kester has witnessed revolutionary change in medicine and emergency response over the years, beginning with her bare hands and advancing to the ability to divert a patient to the proper emergency room according to medical needs.

“In the early days, we had no blood pressure machines, no AEDs, we did a lot of guessing and if you got icky, ‘oh well’ – it was a hazard of the job,” she said.

There was no advanced care. It was just first aid, but Kester said they took good care of people.

“Things have evolved and gotten better and better. In 1989-1990, AIDS and HIV came into the picture, and we used latex gloves for a short period until people developed latex allergies,” Kester noted. “With each change, we do more and more for our patients. We have always provided good care, and we now do more. Keeping up with education has been a challenge at times, but we have to keep up with it. We have to advance because medical care is a practice that’s always changing. Just look at the medicines we carry now, better medical equipment. I think, ‘Wow’.”

It’s been through the generosity of the Chatfield community and some epic grant writing that Kester and her EMT crew have been able to purchase power-lift cots and the 12-lead EKGs that have been installed in the ambulances.

The director shared, “We had two vans when I first joined, and we used to keep our trucks for 15 years, but Alice Manahan left money so that we were able to go to a ten-year rotation. We’re so blessed.”

The old CCTV van was one of the service’s first type-three vehicles, and over the years the service has gotten vehicles that have changed size and layout, with different and better equipment.

“We used to do all our billing on paper, all our reports were on paper, and now it’s all computerized and so much better,” she added.

Those improvements are important to note, as Kester pointed out, “When I started, we would get 70 calls a year, and last year we had 387, so there’s quite a difference.”

The service’s EMTs are on call around the clock – if it’s not one team, it’s the members of one of the other two.

“It’s fortunate that Nancy Timm, Rocky Burnett and I are able to fill in during the weekday hours and be available because most of our volunteers are able to cover weekends. We do have a couple of guys who are around if someone can’t fill their daytime hours, or if we have meetings.”

Making certain there will be someone to answer in another’s moment of need is vital. That means that Kester and anyone who’s ever been on her crew understand what it’s like to be on call, asleep and suddenly awakened or to be on call over holidays and miss Christmas dinner, a child’s birthday party or important tournament.

She admitted that crawling through ditches to get the right equipment to a patient in a car wreck or finding that a neighbor has suffered an illness or injury that can’t be easily medicated or patched has left its mark on her.

“After 32 years of being an EMT, there are some things in my head that I would like to get out of my head, but thankfully, now PTSD in health care providers and EMTs is recognized as an illness,” Kester said. “I think the hardest is taking care of people you know and knowing their families. Little kids and babies are really hard, and I thank goodness that we don’t have a lot of pediatric calls because they’re the tough ones.”

Kester said when responding to a call for a person, she focuses on giving the best care she can and cherishing the moments when they look up at her and say they are glad she’s there, giving the patient comfort and reassuring them that it will be all right.

“That’s when I say, ‘God, it’s you and me,’” Kester shared. “I’m a fairly spiritual person, so when I’m out on a call for something unusual, I always say a prayer.”

She also said one of the rewarding parts of the job is when somebody has severe trauma and everything turns out well in the end.

“That’s a great feeling,” she said. “Or when someone has been in cardiac arrest, we’ve used the defibrillator. God enables us to be a part of that…we had someone who was lifeless, we used CPR and the defibrillator and someone is up and talking who wasn’t before. We’re just ordinary people trained to do extraordinary things.”

Community service beyond the call to be director has certainly become part of her career.

“We give the kids who are the winners of the ambulance poster contest a ride to school in the ambulance – they get to pick which truck they want to ride in, whether they ride laying on the cot or sitting in the stair chair,” she said.

The ambulance service has also rekindled its programs at the high school where EMTs teach hands-only CPR and make students first aid aware.

“Brian Baum invited us back, and we thought it would be a great way to get some of these kids involved,” she said. “It’s a great way to plant the seed so that maybe some of them might become EMTs.”

Kester said she loves working with kids.

“It’s just neat to be able to go into the school and tell these kids that they can make a difference whether someone lives or dies, just by calling 911,” she said. “And when we do preschool training, we let them get into the ambulance and they’re interested to know the pieces and parts in the truck. They want to know everything.”

Additionally, Chatfield’s ambulance station is home to a training center that is known in the area as the place to learn how to become an EMT.

“I have been teaching since 1990 when the training facility was established here, and I can’t count the students that have come through Chatfield Emergency Medical Services training, but our training has grown also,” Kester said. “We have a versatile group of educators who each bring their own areas of expertise to the students. I look over the years at the people who have come through here, and five have gone on to become doctors and three or four have become nurses or paramedics. We have a gal right now who’s in med school.”

Kester determined that retirement would happen upon the 25th anniversary of her hiring because she felt it was time to spend more time with Wayne, to encourage her children and grandchildren in their endeavors – some of which included being EMTs and Marines like their parents and grandparents – and to pursue the things that got put down when the pager went off.

“This gives me more time to spend with my husband, who has an illness, and with my children and grandkids, with my great-granddaughter,” Kester reiterated. “As I retire, I’m not going away. I’m going to teach more and put in some hours on the schedule each month. But I look forward to sleeping in and having my morning coffee with Wayne, doing some sewing, gardening and other things that I’ve put aside for my career as director.”

It hasn’t come without the bittersweet realizations that she’ll be a Chatfield retiree, not a Chatfield employee. “Every time I did something that was my last, it was hard. I just do what I do. I don’t know anything else,” Kester said. “Last year, when I was nominated for the Jefferson Award, I felt undeserving because EMS has been my career. I’ve loved every bit of what I’ve worked for, I’ve loved the people I’ve worked with, and it’s just what I know. I think I’ve gotten more out of it over the years than my patients and students have, and maybe more.”

She stated that it’s the unexpected things that she’ll miss, like Chatfield Police Chief Shane Fox’s humming a tune in the police department’s office next door. “I’m going to miss hearing Shane singing in the next room. He’d come visit me over the years, and I’m going to miss the people I have worked with over the years. I hope that we have lasting friendships – there have been some great people,” she added.

Kester also said she will miss the ABC crew that comes every day to clean city hall. “I’m definitely going to miss them a lot because I see them more than some of the other staff here, and they’re so much fun,” she said. “There have been some really great people and a great partnership over the years.”

However, she’s pleased to know that she’s leaving the ambulance service to new ambulance Director Burnett and Assistant Timm, both of whom have been faithful to the crew’s mission as EMTs while she’s been at the helm.

“That gives me a really good feeling,” she said. “He’ll do a really good job, with Nancy seconding. They’ll do just as good or even better than we have in the past. Things will change, and they may not do things the same way I did, but they’ll do fine.”

As for the California-born Kester, going back in time to Chatfield – the place where most of the rest of her West Coast family chose to relocate once they visited – has proven a blessed choice. “I wouldn’t want to live anyplace else,” Kester concluded. “My kids grew up here, my grandchildren grew up here, and this is home. I just think of the people in the community and the lives I’ve gotten to touch.”